The butter went in first. It slides across the warm pan with a sizzle leaving a melted shiny trail in its wake.
Flour, the elbows, and the cheddar cheese; tonight’s menu… my mother is making Macaroni and Cheese. Always from scratch, bake in the smooth cheddar goodness, this is not a side dish, supper. This is a have some sliced tomatoes and bread with it, a stand on its own full-blown entre.
It is still a favorite.
There are no boxes, no mixes, no prepackaged quickie food items here.
I hop up on the orange formica counter top, bare feet dangling down above the bright game board patterned indoor outdoor carpet that covers the kitchen floor; repeated checker boards, in deep dark brown,yellow, and orange, a way-too Brady Bunch Kitchen without any Alice.
My mother’s temper heated faster than her copper pots, the wooden spoon her go to tool of choice for reminding her five children just who was in charge. I sit just out of reach and watch her every move. From my perch I watch the magic happen.
The butter pools and starts to bubble, she adds the flour, in equal measure, a roux. She stirs a constant -don’t let it burn stir, a slow burping bubbling starts, time to add the milk; 1 tablespoon butter, 1 tablespoon flour, to 1 cup of milk, the constant and comforting ratio.
Stirring no stopping now, slowly slowly bring to an almost boil, just a single bubble is all the reassurance one needs that it is ready. Mom needs no bubble, her skilled eye sees the time is right when the basic cream sauce holds and slowly coats ever smoothly the back of the spoon when she lifts it out of the pan. Take it off the heat. Time to add the cheddar, stir the sauce, watch it turn from creamy white, to sharp cheddar soft orange. How much cheese? Measuring is out, a quick wipe of a finger across the back of the spoon, she does it by taste, knows when it’s just right, it is.
The big pot is almost at the boil, steam rises, salt is poured in her hand, tossed in the pot, the boiling stops, momentarily, then begins again. She pours the box of elbows in gives it a stir.
“Mom….? How come we don’t have real measuring spoons?”
Real measuring spoons, the ones I saw in Home Ec class. The ones that the teacher, skinny pale-faced just graduated from college and is the same height as 13-year-old me, teacher said is a kitchen basic…whateverthatmeans.
“How many of you don’t have kitchen measuring spoons? Cups?” she asked in her monotone voice.
My hands are glued to my side, we have no such items, but I not tell’n. I’m already on thin ice in this class, having taken too many passes with the sewing machine on my stuffed octopus pillow project. AND I didn’t follow directions, didn’t leave a hole open on said seam so I could stuff said octopus with stuffing…AND the final grade dropping straw, smirking and telling the teacher,
“That is not how my mother does it…” followed quickly by, “and she doesn’t use anything from a box”.
“Well your mother isn’t giving you a grade for this class is she?” the teacher barked back.
At first I thought this Home Ec teacher just didn’t understand. Hey, this is me, I am one of the good ones, I loved school, never missed, always did my homework, never late with a library book, loved school. Griffith school cafeteria with its big fluffy rolls and scoops of peanut butter and chocolate milk on Fridays, the fields where we played kickball, four square, ran track and hung out in the far corner, daring each other to leave school grounds by stepping through the opening in the chain link fence.
Then I realized she just really didn’t like me. I blurted answers out, didn’t wait on being called on, and even when she did call on me, for some reason she always told me I was wrong.
“What does it mean when we say, clean as you go?”
The blurter in me jumps, “It means what you said, clean as you go, so wash the utensils as you use them, wash the bowls and whatever you used as your cake is baking, stuff like that…”
I don’t remember the answer that was correct, I remember thinking, boy this bitch really can’t stand me…and having a really red face for the rest of the class.
So sorry… didn’t raise my hand, we don’t have any of those Tupperware pretty spoons, no metal neat and stack inside each other kind of cups either. We have regular spoons from the silverware drawer, and a teacup with roses on it instead; BUT I need to pass this stupid class and graduate from 8th grade.
My mother put the spoon down and looks right at me, “I don’t need measuring spoons…I have this…” she holds up her hand.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Get a teaspoon from the drawer,” she instructs.
I hop off the counter, open the draw and get a spoon. Mom turns around grabs the salt, and pours it into her hand.
“This is exactly a teaspoon, ” she explains, holding out her hand with a tiny mound of salt on her palm.”Now give me the spoon.”
I hand Mom the spoon, standing closer, looking at her palm as she scoops up the salt which all fits with no room to spare on the spoon. It was exactly a teaspoon, no more no less.
“That is why we don’t have measuring spoons, we don’t need them, and they are a waste of money.”
She turns, drains the elbows using the lid from the pot, and after giving them a big shake, pours them in the pan with the cheese sauce, stirs and then puts it all into a dish and under the broiler.
The next day I enter Home Ec, pillow now properly stuffed and graded awaits retrieval from the table. The note pinned to the octopus was full of comments, it held my grade and wonderful commentary on my sewing ability.
“Your stitches are too far apart, not enough seam allowance, and you made multiple passes with machine…D+.”
D+ a first for me, the I love school straight A gal. I sit stewing for the entire class. I keep my eyes down staring at the lopsided octopus in my hands, face growing red, cheeks aflame with shame, for getting a D+. My mother sewed a lot of our clothes, she even sewed the dress I wore in our graduation picture, and wore to the dance. D+ my ass.
The bell rings, I stay in my seat. When the class was finally empty I look up at the teacher and say,
“I finished the project, completed it, and don’t deserve a D-…and for your information we don’t have any measuring spoons, or cups at my house…my mother says don’t need them…they are a waste of money.”
No reaction. Pasty face teacher has no reaction.
I look down and I have twisted the Octopus in my hands, I twist it more and give it a pull, a seam pops open, a weak spot; Like Bill Bixby when he turns into the hulk, Lou Ferrigno, I tear at the seam, rip it open, pull out the stuffing and I confess, I proceed to murder the Octopus right before the Home Ec teachers ever-widening eyes.
My mother retrieved me from the principles office. We drive home in silence, she pulled into the drive way, places the car in park, and turns to me and in a quiet almost stunned voice said to me,
“..she tried to give me measuring spoons and cups.. Then asked me if it was true I never used mixes….I told her that a real cook doesn’t need them, and mixes were not economical, actually they are a waste of money…she didn’t believe me.”
She looked at me then, she saw and understood. My face finally cooled, even sitting in a parked car, in the driveway, on an Arizona May.
“I spoke to Mr. Haggard, you are getting a C in Home Ec, don’t lose your temper again, even if you are in the right, and even when the teacher is a complete idiot.”
Then we went in the house, and made some supper, without measuring spoons and cups, and mixes, and it was good.